KEVIN DIXON: The Fawlty Towers Legacy
Along with Agatha Christie, Torquay’s best known export is, of course, Basil Fawlty, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
Though the series wasn’t actually filmed in the Bay, Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Python’s stay in Torquay’s Gleneagles Hotel and the behaviour of its owner. This was Donald Sinclair who became the model for Basil. John Cleese later used the name ‘Donald Sinclair’ for his character in the film Rat Race (2001).
After the Python's Torbay visit, John Cleese developed the Basil character. For a glance at a proto-Fawlty, here’s a brief clip from a John Cleese-scripted 1971 episode of Doctor at Large featuring an offensive hotelier.
Fawlty Towers was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1975. Only 12 episodes were produced but the series was placed first in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000.
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During 1977 and 1978, it was sold to 45 stations in 17 countries and was the BBC's best selling overseas programme.
The other Fawlty Towers character that captured the hearts of viewers was the Spanish waiter Manuel, played by Andrew Sachs.
The series initially failed in Spain because of the portrayal of Manuel, but became popular when Manuel's nationality was changed to Italian. Indeed, the treatment and depiction of Manuel did cause offence in Europe, notably at the 1979 Montreux Light Entertainment Festival.
So, was Manuel always from Barcelona?
One suggestion is that he was actually a Hungarian living in Torquay. In 1956 the people of Hungary rose in revolt against their government and its Soviet-imposed policies. In the wake of the failed revolution, 20,000 Hungarian refugees came to Britain and a number to Torquay.
One was Alex Novak who opened the Budapest Grill in Market Street. Along with his fellow countrymen, Alex formed the Torquay Hungarians football club and he also played for the Torquay Hotels team in the local Wednesday League. A former toolmaker, Alex turned down the chance to play for Wolverhampton Wanderers.
In 2002 the Telegraph interviewed Alex who claimed that he was the inspiration behind Manuel. It’s probably worth noting, however, that John Cleese has stated that there was no single role model for the character.
Nevertheless, Alex recalled that he was working as a restaurant manager in the Links Hotel, when he encountered John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python team when they were filming in the Bay.
He was still struggling with a new language, and his broken English was picked up by Cleese and incorporated into the character of Manuel.
Referring to this claim, Andrew Sachs has accepted that, "He could have been from Budapest and I could have played a Hungarian waiter, but Spanish did seem to work."
Decades later, the legacy of Fawlty continues.
The sitcoms Third Rock from the Sun and Cheers have cited Fawlty Towers as an inspiration. Notably, both these series have had John Cleese as a guest. The core idea of a dysfunctional 'family' in the workplace has also influenced, amongst others, Father Ted and Pakistan's Television Corporation's sitcom Guest House.
After the series ended, some of the Fawlty characters turned up in other settings.
In 1981, Andrew Sachs as Manuel recorded his version of the Joe Dolce's Shaddap you Face. The record was never released as Joe Dolce took out an injunction.
The actresses who played Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby reprised their roles in a 1983 episode of Only Fools and Horses.
John Cleese played Basil Fawlty for an unofficial England 2006 World Cup song, Don't Mention the War. The next year, John Cleese and Andrew Sachs appeared in a six-episode corporate video for Norwegian oil company Statoil. In the video, Fawlty is running Basil's Brasserie, while Manuel owns a Michelin Star restaurant.
In 2007, Prunella Scales played Sybil Fawlty in a Children in Need send-up of the BBC drama series Hotel Babylon.
The success of the series encouraged remakes. In 2001 a German pilot named Zum letzten Kliff was made, but further episodes were not commissioned. ‘Manuel’ is now from Kazakhstan. Note the similarities to the British set design:
Of course, the Americans have, over the years, remade and adapted dozens of British TV series. Here's a fairly good list
Yet, they never managed to successfully remake Fawlty Towers, despite three attempts.
ABC made two of the remakes. They were Snavely and Amanda's.
In 1978, Snavely transferred the Torquay setting to a hotel in Middle America. Other than that, the characters and situation mirrored the original. Harvey Korman played the Basil-like Henry Snavely, Betty White was his wife Gladys, Frank LaLoggia was the bellhop Petro who barely speaks English, and Deborah Zon was college student Connie, working as a waitress. ABC screened the pilot episode on June 24, 1978, but it failed to be picked up for a series.
ABC tried again with Amanda's which aired from February 10 to May 26, 1983. Basil was now a woman called Amanda, played by Bea Arthur, the owner of a hotel overlooking the Pacific called Amanda's By the Sea. The staff of Amanda's included her son Marty, his spoiled wife Arlene, Earl the chef, and Aldo the bellhop.
Amanda's was cancelled in May 1983 after a four-month run and 10 episodes (3 more episodes remained unaired).
Here's Amanda with, “What did you expect to see out of a window in California? Krakatoa erupting?''
A third remake, called Payne, was made by CBS as a mid-season replacement. Broadcast in March and April of 1999, it was produced by and starred John Larroquette, who had portrayed the assistant district attorney in the sitcom Night Court.
The show also starred Julie Benz, Rick Batalla and JoBeth Williams – who played the mother in the horror film Poltergeist.
Most of the episodes had the Cleese/Booth scripts adapted to the new characters and location. The pilot episode, for example, merged the plots of the Fawlty Towers episodes Gourmet Night and The Hotel Inspectors. It was quickly cancelled: nine episodes were filmed, eight were aired.
After 35 years, Fawlty Towers still has a place in the TV sitcom Hall of Fame and is regularly referenced. For no particular reason, here's Basil meeting Dr Who: